Port-au-Prince, Republic of Haiti (1749- )

Port-au Prince, Haiti, 2007
Photo by Elena Heredero CC BY 2.0)

Port-au-Prince is the capital, largest city, commercial center, and chief port of the Republic of Haiti. Some 90% of Haiti’s investments and jobs are found in Port-au-Prince. Estimated to be about 1.2 million inhabitants (and nearly three million inhabitants in the metropolitan area), the city alone has about 12% of the nation’s population. People of African descent constitute 95% of Port-au-Prince’s community, with Hispanic, Asian, European, and Middle East Haitians accounting for the rest of the population.

Port-au-Prince is located on the Gulf of Gonâve, a wide harbor on the southwestern coast of the Caribbean region’s second-largest island, Hispaniola. Port-au-Prince’s natural harbor has seen economic activity long before Christopher Columbus’s arrival to the island in 1492, when the Arawakan-speaking Taino Indians inhabited the region. The city was named for the ship Prince, which first arrived at the French colony of Saint-Domingue (as Haiti was then known) in 1706, and was founded by the Marquis of Larnage, Charles Burnier, in 1749. In 1770 Port-au-Prince replaced Cap-Haïtien as Saint-Domingue’s capital.

The Haitian Revolution (1791-1804), led by Toussaint L’Ouverture, ended three centuries of Spanish and French rule and brought about both independence and the abolition of slavery. On January 1, 1804 Port-au-Prince became the capital of Haiti.

Port-au-Prince has seen both triumph and travail during its long history. The Academy of Haiti was established in 1823, and in 1845 Le Moniteur Haitien, the nation’s first newspaper began publication. Faustin Soulouque, a general in the Haitian Army, was elected President of Haiti in 1847.  On April 16, 1848 Soulouque, an uncompromising enemy of mixed-race Haitians, ordered the massacre of “mulattoes” in Port-au-Prince.  The decimation of “mulattoes,” as well as any black Haitians whom Soulouque suspected of disloyalty, continued throughout the country until January 15, 1859, when Soulouque’s reign ended.  In 1860 the Haitian Navy was created, and in 1881 the Banque Nationale d’Haiti was established.

Port-au-Prince’s National Palace of Haiti, the nation’s national parliament building, was completed in 1912. It was designed by local architect Georges H. Baussan, a graduate of the Ecole d’Architecture in Paris. Several political assassinations in Haiti between 1911 and 1915 resulted in the presidency changing six times. To protect U.S. corporation interests, President Woodrow Wilson on July 28, 1915 ordered 330 United States Marines to land at Port-au-Prince. The U.S. occupied the capital and the nation from 1915 until 1934.

During the years of Haiti’s occupation the population of Port-au-Prince rose to approximately 120,000.  A concrete wharf was constructed, a radio station began broadcasting in 1926, Bowen airfield began operating in 1929, and a movie house opened.  The city continued to expand after the Americans left. The National Library of Haiti was founded in 1940, the Centre d’Art in 1944, the Institut Français in 1945, and the Port Administration of Port-au-Prince in 1956.  The International Airport opened near Port-au-Prince in 1965 (today it is called the Toussaint L’Ouverture International Airport).

François Duvalier (“Papa Doc”) president of Haiti from 1957 to 1971) and his son, Jean-Claude Duvalier (“Baby Doc,” president from 1971 to 1986) were both born in Port-au-Prince.  Their regimes were notoriously corrupt and marked by egregious human rights violations.  Following Baby Doc’s exile, on September 11, 1988, Father Jean-Bertrand Aristide became Haiti’s first democratically elected president (in 1991, and 1994-1996, then 2001-2004).

An economic crisis in the countryside between 1982 and 1995 almost tripled Port-au-Prince’s population as thousands of impoverished migrants entered this poorly planned city, creating and expanding slums that were beleaguered with poverty and violence.  Social instability and military repression reigned throughout Aristide’s presidency, and continues to this day.

On January 12, 2010 a magnitude 7.0 earthquake decimated Port-au-Prince: nearly 250,000 people were killed and 300,000 were injured; 1.3 million people were displaced; over 97,000 houses were demolished and nearly 200,000 were damaged. Hospitals and critical city networks were destroyed, along with Port-au-Prince’s historic central district, the parliament building, and its capitol building. Foreign aid and billions of dollars are helping Port-au-Prince recover from the earthquake’s devastation and to develop a more modern infrastructure. The rebuilding continues.